Summary and Info
André Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, translated by Catherine Temerson (New York, Holt Paperbacks, 2001)
The short of it is that this book will make you feel good about being good.
The long of it is:
I was doing a paper on `value ethics', and my experience was that in the world of professional philosophy, especially since 1903, with the publishing of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica and his promulgation of the `naturalistic fallacy', the consideration of values and character had virtually disappeared. This general impression was confirmed when I looked at a few scholarly ethics texts from the 1960's and they confirmed in plain speaking, that the study of ethics had become an analysis of language, given the King Kong sized influence of the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Mighty Joe Young sized works of J. L. Austin, a direct descendent of the influence of G. E. Moore's style of philosophy.
But I kept following my nose and in a very recent ethics book by Terry Eagleton, Trouble With Strangers, he criticized both European psychologized ethics of Jacques Lacan and the 'high-toned' morality talk of law, right, duty, principle, and obligation traceable to Immanuel Kant. Eagleton also cited a relatively new collection of papers, Virtue Ethics, which headlined an important 1958 paper by Wittgenstein student, G.E.M. Anscombe on `Modern Moral Philosophy' which began a return to virtue ethics. The irony is that the flaw Anscombe pinpointed in moral philosophy is the absence of sound analysis in `philosophical psychology', a subject which always sounded odd to me, as the history of philosophy, especially from the ancient Greeks up to Descartes, was a spinning off of disciplines to children such as physics, mathematics, and psychology. But ethics, especially virtue ethics and the various flavors of Utilitarianism stand and fall by what they mean by mental states such as `pleasure' and `happiness'. So, in retrospect, I was not too surprised when I searched amazon.com for `virtues' and character, and came up with nothing but books on self-help, psychology, and `Christian values'. That last is no surprise, as the contemporary academic moral philosophy is all about rules and values for the group. It spends virtually no time on the moral perspective on the individual. But I did find one practical book on `moral values' which is a fitting complement to the new theoretical work on virtues. This is the book cited above, by a modern French professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. According to the thumbnail biographical sketch, this book has been translated into 19 languages and has been a bestseller in France.
My very first reactions were that the book was not a superficially saccharine treatment of the subject and that it did offer serious reflections on the virtues which relied on thoughts from many great philosophers and essayists such as Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Epicurus, Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pascal, Plato, Spinoza, and Simon Weil. And those are just the high points. When the title says `great virtues, I half expect to find the seven virtues of Catholic theology or `the seven heavenly virtues' which contrast the seven deadly sins. Instead, I find eighteen, with far more congruence with Aristotle than with the church fathers. These eighteen, in a somewhat intuitive order, are:
(Sorry, Amazon squeezes out all the tabs and extra spaces)
Politeness Fidelity Prudence Temperance
Courage Justice Generosity Compassion
Mercy Gratitude Humility Simplicity
Tolerance Purity Gentleness Good Faith
The insight of prudence may have been one of Aristotle's greatest contributions to moral philosophy. It is the property which tempers the slavish devotion to rules to something which accurately reflects common sense in life.
One irony of virtue ethics is that on the one hand, it is seen as a means to establish a moral theory independent of a belief in God, while it also seems to be a far better embodiment of the Christian ethics of the Gospels than the rules based thinking of Kant or the `greatest good for the greatest number' utilitarianism of Mill. These are both `Apollonian' styles of ethics. Without checking my Nietzsche texts, I suspect `virtue ethics' is a more balanced mix of the Apollonian with the Dionysian, grounded in intuition, emotion, slightly unstable, and with an appreciation of the chaotic.
More About the Author
André Comte-Sponville (born 12 March 1952) is a French philosopher born in Paris, France.
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